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External Advisory Groups explained

Strategy and transparency were the principal objectives in Jack Metthey's mind when he first conceived the idea of the External Advisory Groups for the Fifth Framework Programme.

After the European Commission decided to make room for revisions during the course of the Fifth F...
Strategy and transparency were the principal objectives in Jack Metthey's mind when he first conceived the idea of the External Advisory Groups for the Fifth Framework Programme.

After the European Commission decided to make room for revisions during the course of the Fifth Framework Programme, Mr Metthey, at that time a senior advisor in the Research Directorate-General, resolved to involve the people affected by the programmes. This would have the dual purpose of opening up the Commission's activities to the outside world, whilst benefiting from the expertise and advice of senior players in industry and academia.

'We wanted to improve the relationship between the different actors who are playing a role in the programmes from the research world, industry and users, at a time when we were trying to improve further the management of the programme,' he said. 'It should be a two-way process. We open ourselves up to the outside world, and in turn the experts get to know a little more about how we work, and hopefully transmit some of this to people outside.'

It seems to have worked. Ulf Olsson, chairman of the External Advisory Group on Aeronautics, said his members enjoyed an increasingly positive relationship with the Commission. 'Before we were afraid that the Commission was overly bureaucratic, but the people I have dealt with so far have been enthusiastic and helpful and I tell everyone about this. They listen to what we are saying, and try their best to accommodate what we think is necessary.'

The groups were set up on 20 November 1998 when 278 experts were selected for 17 advisory groups to provide the Commission with independent advice on research carried out under the Key Actions of the Fifth Framework Programme. They advise on the content and direction of the Key Actions, including the drafting of detailed work programmes, establishing testable objectives for attaining the objectives where possible, and advising on reorientation of the programme's direction if necessary. Although the Commission is under no obligation to accept the decisions of the EAGs, their contributions are highly valued.

Members are appointed in a personal capacity, meaning they are independent of organisation or country. They are selected for a period of two years from high-level industrialists, academic researchers, users of research, members of regulatory bodies and representatives of other research-oriented bodies. Normally they must be citizens of the Member States, but members of countries associated with the Framework Programme will shortly be invited to join.

The Commission chooses the members of the groups in a number of ways. Some names are put forward by various Commission departments, and Member States are invited to submit suggestions. In addition the Commission published a call in the Official Journal in 1998 inviting qualified persons to apply or put forward names, to which almost 5,000 people responded. 'They must be competent, independent and capable of strategic vision,' said Mr Metthey.

Although only 10% of applicants were women, their high level of expertise enabled the Commission to increase the overall percentage on the groups to almost 30%, with nearly half the groups being chaired by a woman.

There are other bodies involved with the Framework Programmes but the role of the EAGs is quite distinct. The Programme Committees, composed of representatives of the Member States' governments, express a formal opinion on Commission proposals for drawing up and updating the work programmes for the specific programmes, and on research actions proposed for funding by the Commission. In turn the Commission is required to inform them of the overall progress of the Framework Programme. The committees work on the basis of qualified majority, and where they do not accept a proposal, the Commission may then put it forward to the Council.

By contrast the EAGs have a less formal role. However their opinion is sought before proposals are submitted to the Programme Committees. 'Although we are not obliged to take their advice, we listen very carefully to what they have to say - there would be no point if we didn't', said Mr Metthey. In addition the chairmen of all the advisory groups meet occasionally to discuss the overall direction of the programmes and the exploitation of results. Shortly they will take 17 of the 60 seats on the European Research Forum which will be set up in the coming months to give strategic advice on research activities and the Framework Programme.

The set-up of the EAGs has a built in flexibility, in line with the modern management techniques the Commission is bringing in. The outcome depends very much on the individuals involved and the group dynamics. 'We get out of it whatever they put in,' said Mr Metthey. 'It's an individual thing. Some groups are more active than others, but we value them all.'

Source: European Commission, Research Directorate-General; EAGs secretariat

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